Bad for Dogs, Worse for Cats

in 29st Toronto International Film Festival

by Norman Wilner

The films laid out for FIPRESCI consideration at the 2004 Toronto International Film Festival were what you’d delicately call a mixed bag, culled from every section of the program and organized, I was told, by three criteria: First film, world premiere, no North American distributor.

Well, that didn’t last. Paul Haggis’ intriguing Crash was picked up by Lions Gate shortly after its rapturous gala screening – having Sandra Bullock show up for the red carpet is usually a good way to get your movie bought – and Sony Pictures Classics swooped down upon Alice Wu’s sweet-natured Saving Face, a Manhattan romantic comedy built out of equal parts Double Happiness and Better Than Chocolate.

We ignored that stuff, anyway; when you’re figuring out how to see 21 films which all seemed to be screening opposite one another, you don’t have much time to read the trades. And in any case, it didn’t matter: Our prize went to Brad McGann’s In My Father’s Den, a New Zealand production which, as I write this, had yet to be acquired.

Looking back now, In My Father’s Den was a nicely Torontonian choice for the jury – it’s a film that owes a considerable deal to local hero, Atom Egoyan, having borrowed his fractured timelines, his brooding pacing, and his perpetual fascination with simmering family secrets. (There’s also a brief hint of the kinky sex Our Atom threw into his earlier, funny films, but I’m not really sure McGann got the joke.) More importantly – as you’ll see – no animals were harmed or injured in the making of the film.

For whatever reason, the 2004 Toronto FIPRESCI lineup gave us the festival of dead dogs. An adorable puppy is crushed under a rain of bricks in Xiao Jiang’s Electric Shadows; an Australian shepherd chokes on a remote control in Anna Reeves’ Oyster Farmer. A pit bull comes to a particularly bad end in Aksel Hennie’s Uno, and the breed doesn’t fare much better in Saul Dibb’s Bullet Boy. A Jack Russell terrier barely survives a run-in with a subway monster in Christopher Smith’s Creep, and I have a feeling something bad happened to a few farm dogs at some point in Alex Turner’s Dead Birds.

This isn’t to suggest that people got off light this year. Fanta Régina Nacro’s La Nuit de la Vérité – which repurposes an old Star Trek episode as an allegory of tribal reconciliation in Burkina Faso, winding up as earnest and didactic as a Gene Roddenberry wet dream – features a sequence in which the mother of a murdered boy gets to confront her son’s killer, and barbecue him in his own marinade. The characters of Ra’up McGee’s morbidly moody Automne were connected by their vicious – yet always visually striking – knife wounds. And all manner of colorful misery is visited, for our edification and entertainment, on the leads of Hendrik Hölzemann’s Off Beat, Svetozar Ristovski’s Mirage, Frank E. Flowers’ Haven and Amma Asante’s A Way of Life.

Tom Hooper’s Red Dust used the genuine horrors revealed by South Africa’s roving Truth and Reconciliation Commission – where one could only be forgiven for one’s crimes against humanity if one was absolutely honest in the recounting of them – as a backdrop to a fairly petty story of blame and absolution in which, once again, a white character looks on sympathetically as the black guy cries for his people. (I know, I know, we need the white lead to sell the picture in America. But since when does Hilary Swank open movies?)

And in the aforementioned Creep, a young woman living in the London underground is slain by the movie’s freakazoid maniac in an obscene parody of a gynecological exam: He uses a machete. (The image is revolting, but so is the movie’s invocation of it.)

The greatest horror, as you might have heard, was dealt neither to canines nor to humans, but to a different species entirely. It wasn’t on the FIPRESCI list, but Zev Asher’s Casuistry: The Art of Killing a Cat – a documentary about the 2001 furor over some idiot named Jesse Power who videotaped himself torturing and killing a stray cat, and tried to get out of his act of unspeakable cruelty by passing it off as an art project – became the festival’s hottest topic when equally foolish animal-rights activists concluded, without having seen Asher’s film, that (a) Power’s footage was featured and (b) the documentary somehow supported Power’s act. I was unable to see the film at the festival, but what I did see of it, combined with the testimonies of colleagues who were able to attend the press screenings, would seem to confirm that neither is true.

They might have hesitated in their condemnation had they bothered to look up the film’s title, or read Festival programmer Sean Farnel’s definition of it as “a method of ethical analysis which takes into account the unique circumstances of particular cases […] often used disparagingly, in reference to specious justifications”. But they didn’t. Farnel received a death threat, and protestors turned up at the film’s public screenings. So did Power, who was briefly detained by police after a scuffle with the activists, and later released unharmed. It was a pleasantly Canadian resolution to the conflict: In the movies – or certain of the United States – someone would have been shot before the authorities intervened. This year, it would probably have been a dog.